Debriefing Irma, Officials Say They Need To Do More For Airline Travelers Stranded By Hurricanes

Nov 27, 2017

As Hurricane Irma churned through South Florida, Patrick O'Quinn felt trapped.

He'd moved to Miami about three months before the storm and described himself as "just getting on his feet in terms of finding a place to live." As the storm bore down, O'Quinn decided to fly to Memphis, where he has family.

But the Friday before Irma made landfall, O'Quinn's flight was canceled, leaving him with no option but to board an evacuation bus from Miami International Airport to a hurricane evacuation shelter. Coming from the airport, he didn't get a chance to stock up on the three days' worth of food evacuees are supposed to bring to shelters, or to find a pillow and a blanket to sleep on.

"The only food they've got is what these schoolkids have on the menu. That's running out fast," O'Quinn said, while watching the storm from the covered terrace at Miami Edison Senior High School, the shelter where he and several other airport evacuees had been dropped off. "There's no kind of help here. We're just here. And it's not right."

Evacuees sleep at Miami Edison Senior High School during Hurricane Irma. Under Miami-Dade's emergency management plan, general population hurricane shelters don't provide cots.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN

Hurricane Irma exposed problems in Miami-Dade County's system for assisting airline travelers before, during and after hurricanes. People trying to fly out of the storm's path faced long lines, flight changes and tarmac delays at best; at worst, some -- like O'Quinn -- spent hungry nights sleeping on the floors of general population hurricane shelters, which don't provide cots.

Officials say they're aware of the problems and are considering various solutions as part of their ongoing reports on the storm. Curt Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade County’s emergency management director, says one key to helping stranded travelers is enlisting private sector partners like hotels.

"If there’s an evacuation order in this county, it’s very important for you to work with your guests to make sure they’re getting to the airport safely and booking a flight," he said. "And if they can’t, that you’re making some kind of arrangement with a sister hotel that’s inland."

Read more: Irma-bnb? How South Florida's Tourism Industry Could Help With Preparations For Future Storms

Another possible solution is to limit incoming travel in advance of a hurricane.

"We did not know how hard [Irma] would hit, but we knew it would be a hit," said Daniella Levine Cava, county commissioner for District 8. "I think we need to think hard about going down to the wire."

Levine Cava said she didn't know exactly when the last flight came into Miami International Airport, but that cruise ships continued to arrive in Miami until two days before the storm.

Officials acknowledge more could also be done for travelers who end up stranded. Some people bused to Miami Edison from Miami International Airport said they bought food at the airport and received airline blankets, pillows and snacks. But when the storm cleared and they were told to leave the shelter on Monday, Sept. 11, they said they didn't know where to go since the airport was closed until the next day.

Read more: Problems With Miami-Dade's Emergency Transportation System Caused Pain For Irma Evacuees

After waiting five hours for buses to pick them up from Miami Edison Senior High School, Patrick O'Quinn and two other Irma evacuees called a taxi. It arrived as the buses did, around 1 p.m.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN

Contacted by WLRN after the storm, O'Quinn said he and another stranded traveler spent the night wandering around downtown Miami before taking a taxi to the airport.

"We've all made a lot of observations and notes for things we'd improve for the future," said Alice Bravo, transportation and public works director for Miami-Dade County.